As new coronavirus cases in Pennsylvania and New Jersey soar past levels that prompted shutdowns in the spring, state and local officials are responding by pleading with the public to be more careful, especially on Thanksgiving.
“This virus has not taken a break and we cannot either,” New Jersey Health Commissioner Judy Persichilli said at a Thursday news conference. “Pandemic fatigue is a real threat to containing COVID-19.”
In Camden County, Freeholder Jeff Nash said at a Thursday news conference that the county is “now reverting back to trends that we have not seen since March and April.”
He cautioned that “indoor gatherings are just about the worst way you can spend your time now. We have to be much more cautious. If you are going to get together with friends and family [on Thanksgiving], we ask that you do so outdoors.”
In New Jersey, which saw its highest-ever daily case number on Wednesday, the state Health Department reported 2,104 new cases on Thursday, bringing the total to 247,219. There were 12 more deaths, for a cumulative total of 14,603.
The Pennsylvania Department of Health on Thursday reported an unprecedented daily increase of 2,900 cases of COVID-19, bringing the statewide total to 220,566. Officials also reported 47 more deaths for a total of 8,937 deaths since the pandemic began.
Despite the worsening resurgence, Pennsylvania Secretary of Health Rachel Levine said state officials are not considering a return to the color-coded, phased restrictions of the spring.
“We have no plans to go back to anything like red, yellow, green,” Levine said during a Thursday news conference. “We have no plans to shut down schools at this time.”
David Rubin, the physician who leads a national pandemic tracking and modeling project at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, believes the lack of intervention is unwise.
“These patterns have been emerging for weeks now, met with diminishing intervention from state or city leaders who have been reticent to mount an appropriate response to the gathering crisis at their doorstep,” the team blogged on Thursday.
In Philadelphia, cases are increasing enough that contact tracing is becoming less effective. Out of 2,110 reported cases in the week ending Oct. 31, just 29% were reached by contract tracers in Philadelphia, and agreed to participate in contact tracing, according to city health officials. Twelve percent of patients didn’t have a phone, 9% couldn’t be reached, and 2% did not agree to participate in contact tracing.
Contact tracers did not attempt to reach 47% of patients at all because there are simply too many cases for the city’s staff to handle, said Jim Garrow, a spokesperson for the city health department. In addition, he said, the more cases there are citywide, contact tracing becomes less useful. “Instead of tracking down individual outbreaks, everywhere is an outbreak — so we learn less from the interviews,” he said.
Overall, hospitalizations in the region remain below the level reached in the spring. But in some areas, COVID-19 spikes may be stressing hospital capacity.
Statewide, New Jersey hospitals reported 1,224 COVID-19 positive patients and persons under investigation on Thursday. Of those, 238 patients were in critical care and 36% of those critical case patients were on ventilations. There was also one more report of multisystem inflammatory syndrome in a child.
The percent of diagnostic tests coming back positive has also been rising in both states and is now well over 5%, the benchmark that experts say signals that community spread of the virus is no longer under control. New Jersey reported a positivity rate of 7.7% on Thursday, while Pennsylvania’s rate was 6.1%.
Camden County cases are spiking at a pace that officials called “very worrisome" at a news conference.
On Thursday alone, the county recorded “well over 200 cases,” Nash said. He added that the seven-day average is about 111 new cases per day — the highest during the nine-month pandemic.
Nash said contact tracing has shown that indoor gatherings are fueling the spike. That fits a pattern seen nationwide, as restaurants reopen, colder weather deters outdoor socializing, and people ignore, or become less compliant with, wearing masks and maintaining proper distances.
Anticipating that at least one vaccine will be available by early next year, Levine said Pennsylvania has a preliminary plan for distributing a coronavirus vaccine. Details will depend on which vaccine or vaccines get approved and how federal authorities set priorities for allocation.
Distribution of an approved vaccine should occur quickly, with health workers, essential workers, and vulnerable populations at the head of the line.
However, coronavirus vaccines present logistical challenges. Five of six vaccines in the government’s Operation Warp Speed development program require two doses, Levine said. Two of the current front-runners must be kept at very cold temperatures.
Levine also said any COVID-19 vaccine is not expected to be a “magical cure” for the pandemic. Instead, the protection likely will be more like flu shots, which reduce the risk of illness and may reduce symptoms in those who get sick. Any coronavirus vaccine will not be mandatory, and people who get the vaccine should still continue precautions such as wearing masks and social distancing for an untold number of months, until transmission rates fall sufficiently, Levine said.
Contributing to this report were staff writers Aubrey Whelan, Ellie Silverman, Tom Avril, and Stacey Burling.